This book follows the usual Ibbotson formula for Cinderella-style romances but this time much of it takes place in Manaus on the Amazon, rather than in Britain or Vienna. Manaus, Brazil and its famed opera house will be familiar to readers of The State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, but Ibbotson’s Amazon is a paradise rather than a dark and threatening milieu as in Patchett.
It is 1912 and Harriet Morton, 18, whose mother died when she was two, lives in Cambridge, England with her much older, narrow-minded, and unloving father, as well as his sister, her Aunt Louisa, who resents Harriet and treats her poorly. Her only joy is taking ballet at the Sonia Lavarre Academy of Dance. One day one of Madame’s old friends arrives, a Monsieur Dubrov, looking for outstanding pupils to join his corps de ballet soon traveling to Manaus to perform. He is intrigued by Harriet, and invites her, but Harriet knows she will not be allowed to go. By chance, however, she befriends a little boy, Henry, who is obsessed with the Amazon, and desperately wants Harriet to go there and help find his uncle, rumored to be there. Harriet, like any Ibbotson heroine, could never deny the requests of a little child.
Harriet claims to be going to stay with a school chum, and joins the Dubrov Ballet Company. The opening night in Manaus, she catches the eye of Rom Verney, the chairman of the Opera House trustees, and coincidentally the very man she promised Henry she would find. Rom is rich and charming, but isn’t he rumored to be in love with someone else?
Discussion: The scaffolding of every adult book by Eva Ibbotson is the same:
1. a lovely fresh and innocent young girl instantly beloved by all who meet her
2. encounters an older, wealthy, unmarried man (with inner pain but good at heart) who becomes convinced she is what he needs
3. but there is at least one terrible misunderstanding that pulls them apart
4. until the very end when suddenly the clouds of misunderstanding break and love conquers all
On top of this underlying and pretty much unerring plan, the distinctive elements of each book change and tend to reflect the author’s passions: opera, ballet, classical literature, and so on.
Does that mean the books are too predictable to read more than one? Absolutely not. That is, absolutely they are predictable but each one of them is still a joy.
In this book, I loved the exotic setting of Manaus with its riotous color and picturesque foreign landscape, and the details of the rigors of ballet training that are so lovingly depicted. And as is very much the usual case with Ibbotson, the side characters are memorably and delightfully drawn, from young Henry, whom Harriet befriends, to the imperious but so understandable Simonova, the aging star of the ballet company. And the romance in this book is more fully explored than in the others by Ibbotson, and so enchantingly!
Though set in 1912, there isn’t much to the historical fiction aspects of this book, unlike Ibbotson’s others. But again, no complaints – the story is pleasurable regardless.
Evaluation: This book follows the usual Ibbotson formula for romance, which means it is a bit of a Cinderella story. But I hope no one holds predictability against it. Like Ibbotson’s other books, it is engaging and endearing, and the character portrayals, especially those of the minor characters, are especially well-done.
First published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Press, 1985, and re-published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2007